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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Devils with beard and tail

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It’s laughable what we thought when we didn’t know.

I am reading “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan these days. In a chapter about comets, he informs that comets have been known as harbinger of danger, disaster, decease, and destruction for long. At various times, various scientists have described them to be made of “thick smoke of human sins…full of stench and horror before the face of God”, “reproductive cells, eggs and sperms, of planetary sperm…as if planets are produced in some interstellar procreation” and “carrier of spirits, which is smallest but subtle and most useful part of air, required to sustain life”, last of which by no less than Newton himself.

In history of astronomical discoveries we soon realize that separation of science from religion is relatively new phenomenon. In old days, study of ways of nature was pursuits of religious folks too and many astronomers delved into religious interpretations. Newton himself spent last decade or so studying alchemy and left world bereft of many new discoveries that he would’ve made had he utilized time in more productive pursuits. Of course, science and religion conflicted too, and religion did win often, at least temporarily.

A discovery of cyanogen (ingredients of cyanide) in comets tail in 1868 left the world in panic when Halley’s comet was expected to come in 1910. Notwithstanding the fact that concentration of cyanogen is actually much less than that of typical pollutants in current urban areas, newspapers pronounced doom and people made marry in last days of earth. Some smart entrepreneurs sold anti-comet pills and gas masks. Reminded me of a story by some some chaps in China selling air from World Football Final grounds (yes, that’s my knowledge of sports, I don’t remember the venue).

I really tried though but it was difficult for me to imaging what current understandings could be consider as laughable 100 years from now. It would be easy to say that we are more advanced now, but that is always relative. After all, there was time, when greatest minds of time couldn’t imaging a orbit other than circular. It was impossible for them to think, including even Kepler who found out this to his dismay (that orbits are actually elliptical), that Lord of the Worlds would choose anything less perfect than perfectly symmetric circle to move the planets around. We are bound by thoughts of our time, and those that aren’t, lead the progress.